Maryse Boucolon Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Maryse Condé (kohn-day) was born in the West Indies to Auguste and Jeanne Quidal Boucolon. She spent eight years of her adult life teaching in Guinea, Ghana, and Senegal and then took up residence in Paris, save for two years in London working for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC, 1968-1970). Fascinated by the political upheavals in the emerging independent countries of Africa, she focused her attention on them and on the effect such transitions have on the lives of common citizens. Condé is extraordinarily well versed in African history and knows its folklore intimately.

Maryse Boucolon married Mamadou Condé in 1958 and had three children with him. A year after they divorced in 1981, she married Richard Philcox, the translator of most of her novels. With him, she translated into French Eric Williams’s From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492-1969 (1970).

During the years she spent in Africa, many African nations, long possessions of European countries, gained their independence. Many demagogues, motivated largely by visions of personal gain, grasped power, often to the considerable detriment of their people.

When Condé left Africa, she went first to London to serve in the French Services of the BBC, then gravitated to Paris, where she taught while working for the doctorate that the University of Paris awarded her in 1976. Aside from lecture trips and occasional writer-in-resident stints in the United States and the West Indies, she spent her life in Paris until 1989, when she took a position as professor of French at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1992 she moved to the University of Maryland, College Park, and in 1995 to Columbia University, where she also became the chairperson of the French and Francophone Institute in 1997. She has also taught at California Institute of Technology, the University of Virginia, and Harvard University.

It was in Paris that she wrote her first novel, Hérémakhonon. In this novel Condé deals with a problem that pervades much of her writing: She looks at where people cast their lots in transitional politics when their way of life comes into conflict with the dislocations that inevitably occur when their countries succumb to European and American cultural influences. The novel’s protagonist, Veronica, bears a strong resemblance to Condé in that she is a Paris-educated woman from Guadeloupe who works in Hérémakhonon.

Veronica reflects on her life in the West Indies and in Paris. She takes as her lover Ibrahim Sory, who is engaged in an ideological struggle with Saliou, an associate of Veronica at the institute where she teaches. Saliou, a revolutionary, is a figurehead for the new dictator, Mwalimwana....

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The life of Maryse Condé, and the source of many of her preoccupations as a writer, is the story of relocations from an obscure French Caribbean colony to other regions of the francophone world: Paris, West Africa, back to Paris, then back to her natal island. She has earned a living by holding academic posts in Paris, West Africa, and the United States, while acquiring increasing fame as a writer.

Née Boucolon, Maryse Condé grew up in Guadeloupe, one of the two French islands in the West Indies. Her mother was the first black female instructor of her generation, and her father had been recognized by the Legion of Honor. Despite these solid achievements, the family was socially insecure, aware of being black in a racially hierarchical colony. Intelligent and critical, the young Condé was bored in Guadeloupe and found the little island suffocating. Still, she did well as a student and was sent to a high school in Paris; she was later expelled for insubordination after she reacted strongly against attitudes she regarded as racist. She moved on to the Sorbonne (the esteemed university in Paris).

Condé escaped West Indian circles, which she saw as limiting, and made friends in the African community in Paris, where she met and fell in love with Mamadou Condé, a Guinean actor. They were married in 1959 and moved to Guinea. Soon the relationship was facing difficulties, and Condé, who had defied her family by marrying Mamadou, accepted that the marriage was a failure and left her husband, supporting herself and her children by teaching in the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Ghana, and Senegal. In 1969, she met Richard Philcox, who would translate many of her novels into English. They were married in 1982. She returned to Paris in 1970 to work at the Sorbonne on a doctorate in comparative literature, which she completed in 1976. Condé stayed at the Sorbonne as a lecturer for nearly a decade, then returned to Guadeloupe.

Condé also held prestigious academic posts in the United States until her retirement in 2002. She was professor of French at the University of California (Los Angeles and Berkeley), the University of Maryland, and Columbia University, where she also was chair of the French and Francophone Institute.